Trends and Futures

Espresso Course on MOOCs – Day 1

Amazing?  Revolutionary? Disruptive to higher education as we know it?  Or is it all just hype?

In this short Espresso Coffee course we hope to get everyone thinking about these issues and more.

These three days provide a taster for a more detailed course on MOOCs that we have planned for 2017.  We thought we would use the last Coffee Course for the year to get everyone thinking about this topic – a topic which is sure to stir up discussion!

So what is a MOOC?


More than a course, more than a school or institution, a MOOC is an event bringing people together who are interested in a subject.  Some MOOCs are participatory and encourage engagement with other people’s work, and promote networking.  Others may be less participatory.  There may be tasks to complete, usually collaboratively, but usually no assignments as such.  It is sometimes possible to pay a fee for some form of accreditation for work completed in a MOOC. We’ll learn more about this tomorrow in our next post.

Let’s start with a dictionary definition from the Oxford Online dictionary:

“a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people: anyone who decides to take a MOOC simply logs on to the website and signs up”

For a more complex definition that might appeal more to academics and educational designers, take a look at the Wikieducator.

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course.  Let’s take a closer look at each of these terms.


Delivered world wide and takes in tens and even hundreds of thousands of participants per course.   By 2012, the first MOOCs, led by Stanford University professors and an MIT professor,  who put their own campus course on line as open, free, no-credit courses, attracted more than 100,000 students from all around the world.


Generally this refers to the fact that the course is open to anyone who wishes to participate.  There are no prerequisites, entrance requirements, applicant interviews or tuition fees. The platforms and course content are not generally “open” – these are owned by course developers and subject to the normal copyright restrictions.  However, EdX provides truly open educational and platform resources that can be used and adapted by others, in addition to its commercial profit-making platform.


The course is delivered online over the internet using videos, downloadable readings, discussions and social media activity.  Sometimes local groups might form to have “meet ups” but the content and activities are all online.


People may have different definitions of what constitutes a course but it is generally a series of instructional content delivered over a period of time in a structured way.  There is usually some kind of time span during which the course runs.

Watch this video by Educause explaining MOOCs and the “connected age.”

Read more.

A little bit of MOOC history

The acronym MOOC was first coined by Stanford University in 2011.

In 2008, the University of Manitoba in Canada, offered an online course in “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” in which they enrolled a small number of paying students, but also invited a group of non-paying “auditors.”  Unexpectedly, over 2000 auditors enrolled, in spite of very little marketing.

In 2011, the University of Illinois offered the first US-based MOOC, called “Online Learning Today and Tomorrow” and attracted over 2500 participants.  Other mass participant online learning sites emerged around the same time, including the Khan Academy, TED and iTunesU.

In the summer of 2012, there was a rapid growth of enrolments in the three major MOOC platforms that had emerged – Coursera, Udacity and EdX (Sandeen, 2013).

There is now a range of MOOC types with different approaches to accreditation and distribution.

Many traditional universities have jumped on board for a variety of reasons, such as the following:

  • Enhance their reputations,
  • Engage alumni,
  • Recruit students for fee-based degree programs,
  • Replace more traditional learning management systems,
  • Provide students with additional preparation or tutoring,
  • Use learning analytics for course design or refinement,
  • Try new pedagogies that might be imported into fee-based online and classroom-based programs,
  • Provide professional-development opportunities for faculty preparing to teach new courses, and
  • Internationalize place-based courses.

(Sandeen, 2013, )

In the three years up to 2015, over 25 million people from around the world enrolled in MOOCs offered by Coursera, EdX and other platforms.  Many saw it as a revolution in higher education but it has been found that only a small percentage were completing the courses and most participants were already graduates of higher education.

Nevertheless, a survey completed in 2015 shows that those with low socioeconomic status from non-OECD countries and those without a college education are more likely to report benefits.  The overwhelming majority of people who completed MOOCs report career or educational benefits, and a substantial number report tangible benefits such  as getting a new job, starting a business, or completing prerequisites for an academic program.

Zhengao, C, et al Who’s benefiting from MOOCs and Why? Harvard Business Review, September 22, 2015

(More on this in Different Perspectives on MOOCs, Day 3)


Examples of some great MOOC sites



Chen Zhenghao;  Brandon Alcorn; Gayle Christensen;  Nicholas Eriksson; Daphne Koller; Ezekiel J. Emanuel, September 22, 2015 “Who’s benefiting from MOOCs and Why?” In Harvard Business Review, September 22, 2015

Pilkey, B, 2015, “MOOCs, e-Learning and Beyond: exploring the future of virtual built environment teaching University College London, 1st July, 2014” The Town Planning Review 86:1 2015  109-114

Sandeen, Cathy, 2013,  “Integrating MOOCs into traditional higher education:  the emerging “MOOC 3.0″ era”, in Change, the Magazine of Higher Learning Vol 45, 2013, Issue 6


Discussion Questions

  • What has your experience with MOOCs been like?  Have you taken any?  Are you a MOOC addict?  Do you always finish your MOOC course or are you a MOOC butterfly?  Tell us about your experience!
  • How does the idea of MOOCs fit, or not fit, with your educational philosophy and approach?

18 thoughts on “Espresso Course on MOOCs – Day 1

  1. Hi, good dip-your-toes in the water intro guys. I’ve joined probably a dozen or so MOOCs – many just to take a look at the MOOC platform and get a sense of the pedagogical approaches being taken but also a couple that were particularly valuable professionally. Kevin Werbach’s Coursera MOOC on Gamification was great – it made use of some nice gamified aspects (puzzles in the background of the video) and made excellent use of peer evaluation of assignments. The MITx MOOC on Implementing Learning Technology is also amazing and was particularly useful because it ran at a comparatively small size.

    I’ve also finished a couple of Open Uni Australia short courses which are MOOCish but they tended to be video quiz video quiz. I really only stuck with those because the content (Writing for the Web type stuff) was particularly relevant to work.

    I’m still on the fence about MOOCs overall – the modern (because 2008 is ancient times) approach seems a little less organic and a little more commercially focused than the cMOOC model of the trailblazers. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is why technologies get used and championed in universities – there’s never only one reason of course – and it’s sometimes hard to get away from the sense that the excitement at an organisational level is about the ways that they can benefit the organisation and there’s sometimes a feeling that we’re hearing digested talking points from platform sales reps. But maybe this is just a necessary step in a change process. I have a feeling that the greatest benefits from an approach like this (e.g. micro-credentialling and truly flexible degree programs) might yet be too radical a shift for many universities to accommodate.

    1. Yep good point Colin about how decisions are made about learning technologies in universities. Learning tech is big money and there are lots of reps around the place making crazy claims about how technologies can improve learning and save money. Such claims need to be scrutinised carefully. Neil Selwyn has written a lot on this topic and more recently written on MOOCs.

      1. Hi Adrian, I absolutely agree. I’ve read Selwyn as well, and another concern I have relates to the increasing view of education as part of the “sharing economy” like AirBNB, Uber, etc. I think Audrey Watters really summed up the hype cycle and ups and downs of MOOCs really well in her recent post on Hack Education: It’s tough to balance need for flexibility and innovation with vendors, risk-averse institutions, and more!

  2. Hi Colin, thanks for your comments. Those MOOCs you describe that were of some benefit to you sound like something I should check out! I think you are right about the element of commercialisation that has taken over but it looks as if there are still plenty of free courses from the most reputable universities. The next two days will give us an opportunity to look at these issues more closely. Micro-accreditation with badges or certificates that can be counted towards a full qualification seems like a very positive direction, to me.

  3. Hello to the ANU Online team….

    I wish I was in Canberra, or working at ANU, to join the course. My PhD is on self-regulated learning in MOOCs, so it’s all I currently think about.

    But… just so we don’t upset our Canadian friends, you might like to change some bits in the history of MOOCs. The word “MOOC” was coined by Dave Cormier in 2008 in relation to the connectivist inspired Connectivism and Connective Knowledgethat also involved George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I think they would be a bit miffed by you attributing the word MOOC to Stanford.

    The first really really really popular MOOC was a totally different king of MOOC, and that came from Stanford. Two academics Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, put their popular Introduction to Artificial Intelligence campus course online and opened it up to anyone who was interested. It attracted around 160,000 enrollees and some 20,000 of those completed. This startling phenomenon was was began the MOOC goldrush and the set up of Udacity, Coursera and edX. The Stanford style MOOC is quite the opposite of the connectivist MOOC, promoting a top-down instructivist approach to learning, which has its critics, whereas the cMOOC is approaching knowledge creation as a crowd-based, bottom up activity.

    MOOCs have evolved quite a bit since the early days, but it looks like they might be finding their groove. Have a look at this series of articles from Class Central, starting here……

    Adrian Norman
    PhD Candidate
    Macquarie University

    1. Hi Adrian,
      Thanks for the info! I think our information came from this article about MOOCs ( which didn’t mention Cormier in 2008, sorry about that. As a Canadian myself, I’m always glad to hear Canadians getting credit for things 🙂 We talk a bit more about the other types of MOOCs (cMOOC, xMOOC, etc.) in the second post of the course. I’d love to hear more about your PhD topic though, especially considering the work some of my colleauges are doing on building MOOCs.

  4. Are MOOCs Being used to change the world? I mean can we educate global populations on best environmental practice?

    1. Great question Sophie! Thanks for joining us. I think MOOCs have some potential to have big impacts like that. There are MOOCs on climate change and other environmental topics out there, but it takes a university to commit to offering it and advertising it, and of course– resourcing it! Looking forward to chatting more about it.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a MOOC before, but I have some knowledge of them based on the work a colleague is doing in the area. I have listened to lectures on iTunes U before, but not followed a whole course. I have completed an online degree though, which I imagine shares some similarities. I would like to know more about the differences in presentation between the two concepts though, because the distinction seems a bit vague at times.

    I like the idea of MOOCs, but I think they have to be well implemented to be effective – and that’s always a problem with any type of course. I have been taught to have a very specific target group in mind when designing a course, and designing something for thousands of people feels like it goes against this. I wonder how the designers approach this problem.

    Personally, I struggle with online learning, in part because participation in online forums is something I feel very self-conscious about. So for me, an important part of online courses is creating the type of environment where people can learn and contribute. This would be very very difficult for moderators in a course with tens of thousands. How would people even plan for that?!

    I’m really interested in developing MOOCs if I can resolve some of the questions I have, because I like the accessibility of information they provide, and the stand alone nature of many of them mean that they could be easily used to supplement other courses or to develop complementary skills in a field.

  6. I love MOOC’s. I’ve signed up for about a dozen or so and completed probably 4-5 (mostly the ones about teaching or something closely relevant to my field). I love the idea of being able to learn online and for free! Having said that sometimes my enthusiasm to learn out paces my time and so I must admit I have signed up to a number of courses where I haven’t done much more than the first lesson or two.

    I generally think MOOCS have a place in the overall education ecosystem. However, I do note that most of them are very generalist/introductory and obviously can’t give the personalized touch of smaller courses and so while I do think they are very useful, they shouldn’t replace traditional class room teaching

  7. I think what I attended was a previous version of MOOCs. It was in 2009 or 2010 when some Chinese and US top universities built something like an “open course platform”. We could log in the platform and watch the videos of lectures from other excellent universities. I could still remember some examples in the videos now and use in my own tutorials. I also enjoyed watching a lot of courses on classical music, which is my biggest hobby. But after I graduated, most “open courses” required registration and ran on a fixed schedule. I was not so keen on participating since then.

  8. I am very much excited about MOOCs. I think it’s a great educational resource. Before the appearance of online MOOCs as we know them, I completed several Stanford courses which were distributed on CDs (mid-2000s) and worked in a similar way. Since then I have also completed several online MOOCs. But my eyes are really bigger than my stomach, so I am potentially interested in more courses than I actually finish. The ones that I do finish usually have a local community of learners associated with the course, a study group. That is a great motivator.

  9. I haven’t taken any MOOCs – these Coffee Courses are probably the closest comparison for me. However, I would like to explore some at some point. I like the concept of MOOCs in making education more accessible. However, (and with the caveat that I have never taken one), I wonder whether they offer the same quality or standard of teaching and learning. Especially given that some MOOCs offer accreditation or certificates. Are these really comparable to more traditional forms of learning? Looking forward to finding out over the next few sessions.

  10. I haven’t undertaken a MOOC before but I have done some online courses. I found the discussions quite enlightening although I didn’t really feel all that connected to other participants because all communication was through text forums. Perhaps it would have been different if there were some online meetings. I like the idea of things being open to all but I can see that making people feel connected would be a big challenge.

  11. I have signed-up with a lot of MOOCs but paying for a verified certificate never appealed to me. I love the idea of being able to study and learn about a topic that interests me from reputable universities. Aside from engaging with the course content, I spend a lot of time reading about what other participants are writing or asking. I have made contact thru email with some participants to ask about research or projects that they are working on. The connecting part is another thing that I value about MOOCs.

    The other reason why I sign-up to MOOCs is because I’m interested to see how the course is designed. Often I would sign-up to a course that I don’t have any interest with content-wise, just to look at the learning resources like the videos, the structure of the course and the assessment. I am curious to know how subjects like programming and language are designed for massive participants, and for online delivery. I am looking for creative and effective ways to teach topics that often involve laboratory work – and MOOCs being open and free allow me to do this.

    I believe that MOOCs are a great way to support lifelong learning. But as someone with an interest in accessibility, I wonder if accessibility is part of every MOOC’s design process (and I know there’s been research on this).

  12. I lam fascinated by the concept of MOOCs but have never done one. Probably never would? These coffee courses are as close to MOOCs as I have ever been (and that’s saying a lot, because the only point of similarity is the online bit, I guess!). For professional accreditation, I would most certainly look into a MOOC-type course. I have way too many ‘classic format’ university degrees already, most of my adult life has been spent in universities. Why I’m interested in the concept is that I think this will force as as teachers to rethink the fundamentals of teaching, so that disruptive element is always welcome. I’m reluctant to make too big a thing of this though, yes it is disruptive in the sense of methods and audience, but there are much more serious issues to address at a societal level – even within Australia, one of the strongest economies in the world – namely, how do we ensure that from the formative years of 3 years and above, all children have access to learning numeracy and literacy – the journey to university learning starts a decade or so before.

  13. I have taken 2 MOOC courses during my undergrad – Paul and Brian’s Astro introduction course and a course on the Higgs Boson. In both cases, it was included as a part of an ANU course I was taking and we received marks for it (~5-10% of our total grade). I did enjoy the MOOCs at the time and how it added a new method of learning with short bursts of information followed up by mini-quizzes that supplemented the ANU classes well. After completing those MOOCs I remember looking into doing a few more, and there were so many interesting topics to choose from! Some of the titles felt like clickbait and I think I even enrolled in a couple of the more interesting ones; however, with my uni degree still underway, it fell by the wayside.

    I think that MOOCs are a great supplementary tool for learning and can particularly see how they would be of benefit for professional development in the workplace. Additionally, it can be a great way to determine whether you are interested in a certain topic, or just like the idea of it. I think that MOOCs could also be a valuable resource for high school students or anyone pre-uni unsure what to study as they can be used to dip their toes in the waters and help them decide where their interests might lay.

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